How the MTA Plans to Harness New Technology to Eliminate Bus Bunching

The MTA is putting serious resources into combatting uneven bus service, hiring more dispatchers and putting displays in every bus that help drivers even out gaps in service.

Extreme bus bunching on Flatbush Avenue. Photo: Travis Eby/Twitter
Extreme bus bunching on Flatbush Avenue. Photo: Travis Eby/Twitter

The only thing more frustrating than waiting forever for a bus is waiting forever and then watching two or three buses pull up to your stop at the same time. It’s a symptom of unreliable service called “bus bunching” — and the MTA is embarking on a major plan to prevent it. 

With a new command center, more bus dispatchers, and high-tech displays in every bus that will empower drivers to even out gaps between buses, the MTA is putting serious resources (about $300 million) into combatting uneven service.

Bunching is the bane of New York City bus riders because it’s the tell-tale sign of unreliable service. When buses on frequent routes are evenly spaced, riders waiting at a stop can count on the next bus arriving before too long. But when buses arrive in bunches, service is less predictable and some riders get stuck with very long waits. 

Citywide, one of every eight buses arrives in bunches, or within one-quarter of the scheduled time between buses, according to data compiled by TransitCenter. Say the schedule calls for a bus to come every 12 minutes. If one bus comes three minutes after the previous bus, it qualifies as “bunched.” That’s when the problems start, because some riders will then have to wait 21 minutes for the next bus (assuming it’s on time).

The worst bunching tends to happen on important bus routes with lots of riders. The 20 bus routes with the highest rates of bunching carry an average of 20,000 daily trips.

Bunching is not a problem entirely within the MTA’s control. Traffic congestion and other factors throw buses off their schedules. Bus lanes, congestion pricing, and all-door boarding can mitigate these factors and improve reliability. So can better dispatching and control of the bus fleet once operators are already out on the streets.

“The perfect world is everything is on time,” said Cordell Rogers, who oversees the MTA’s war on bus bunching. “Once we step into the real world, we realize everything is not on time, and then we start managing headways.”

A War Room for Better Bus Service

The MTA is currently building a new bus command center, slated to open in 2020, that heralds a reorganization of how it manages bus service delivery.

Staff will still have to put out the same fires — buses will always need to be re-routed because of collisions, street closures, driver assaults, sick passengers, and myriad other things — but the MTA is assigning many more people to the job.

With an increase in supervisors from 20 to 59, the MTA’s bus command center will be able to pay much more attention to keeping buses evenly spaced. Supervisors, who today track as many as 180 individual buses at once, will handle no more than 100 buses at any given time.

The MTA's new bus command center, currently under construction. Photo: David Meyer
The MTA’s new bus command center, currently under construction. Photo: David Meyer

Bus dispatchers will see some technology upgrades before the new command center opens, in the form of an automated dispatching system known as CAD/AVL. Set to launch as a month-long pilot in Staten Island next March, the new CAD/AVL will allow dispatchers to monitor service “down to the block,” Rogers said.

Given traffic-clogged streets, the MTA also needs to be willing to let go of set schedules and dispatch buses in a way that anticipates congestion further down the line, according to TransitCenter’s Chris Pangilinan. If the schedule calls for buses to arrive every eight minutes, for instance, it may make sense to dispatch buses every five minutes when traffic is bad.

Congestion will inevitably slow buses down in the middle of their routes, but smarter terminal dispatching can increase the number of buses arriving on time without the inconvenience of slowing down buses mid-route. “Holding a bus in the middle of the route with a lot of people is in theory a good way to get the gap closed, but there’s a lot of people on that bus,” said Pangilinan. “You’ve got to weigh the pros and cons. The more we can do in the terminals when the bus is empty, the less irritation we cause riders down the line.”

Using daily reports on bus performance, officials could pinpoint where and when slowdowns consistently develop, and adjust dispatching ahead of time.

Empowering Bus Operators

Not all of the adjustments need to come from the top down. Armed with “transit control heads,” iPad-like devices that will be put on the dashboard of every bus in the city, drivers will be able to see the distance between their bus and the buses behind and in front of them, and adjust service accordingly. That could be a seismic improvement for operators, who currently sit at the receiving end of directives from supervisors and managers.

The goal is to “empower… bus operators to better self-regulate,” Rogers said. “Unless you can see the bus in front of you, you don’t know how well you’re doing in terms of headway.”

MTA buses will be equipped with this display -- called a Transit Control Head -- starting next year. Image: MTA
MTA buses will be equipped with this display — called a transit control head — starting next year. Image: MTA

“What pisses off the bus operator is that someone who doesn’t know what’s going on on the ground calls them up and tells them what to do,” said TWU Local 100 Vice President J.P. Patafio, who heads the union’s bus division. “They see dots and they see bunching, and they call the operator and command him to do something. It’s just frustrating the operator. It’s causing more stress and it’s not serving the public.”

“Bus operators know how to make the system work,” Patafio said. “Give them the right tools, and let them be a part of it.”

  • 8FH

    I hope this is helpful, but I often see bunching at the beginning of bus routes, where drivers leave the terminal at the same time. I don’t know if it’s the dispatchers’ fault or if the drivers were just chatting on break and left together, but it’s certainly not due to traffic or boarding issues in those cases.

  • Joe R.

    Bunching happens so often a lot of people say buses have a herding instinct. I hope this has some success at eliminating bunching. It’s a pity we refuse to do more to get cars and traffic signals out of the way of buses. That would mostly let them keep to schedule.

  • AnoNYC

    Very cool technological innovations.

    Buses have the potential to be an efficient way to get around NYC, if only the city gives them true priority on the streets.

  • NYCyclist

    Bus bunching is a big problem, but I would think that since GPS tracks bus location, isn’t there software that can automatically track bunching, and make adjustments to drivers’ schedules, without having to hire more dispatchers and supervisors?

  • eixample

    Yes, I wonder the same thing. If the same smart people who come up with the uber/lyft algorithms to move drivers around efficiently went to work for the MTA, I think we could make a big dent in the bus bunching problem. Bus drivers could be given signals in their buses to skip pick-ups (if there is a bus close behind) and could be informed exactly when to leave their terminal to get bus spacing exactly right from the beginning of the route.

  • mfs

    I believe I sat in a room with NYCT 8 years ago when they said this would be available soon… glad it exists now…

  • AnoNYC

    Judging by the image of the transit control head, it looks as though the software will inform the driver of their distance to other buses in real time. It also looks as though there are time targets.

    So the problem is being tracked, and it will be up to the drivers to adjust according to the information.

    This will need to some nice performance enhancements, it looks to be useful information. The city will have to add more bus lanes and keep lanes clear. Also signal prioritization and adaption of the next generation fare payment system (incl all door boarding).

  • Joe R.

    “Soon” in MTA parlance is sometime in the next decade. Looks like this project met that criteria.

  • Yes, I work on such software. The MTA is a big fan of in-house software, though.

  • fdtutf

    My question about the displayed image is: What is the bus operator supposed to do with this information? Can the bus operator do anything to close the gap in front of their bus? Is the bus operator authorized, e.g., to skip stops where no one wants to get off and only a few people are waiting? (And is this even a good idea, given that it will piss off the waiting passengers, who’ve already waited through a long gap?) What else can the bus operator do to alleviate bunching in this situation?

  • no Name

    MTA B/O 24 years . You want the real truth !

    No matter what tools you invent or claims it will NOT work. as long you hired lazy / don’t give a damn bus operators – it will never work . it’s good work attitude / self pride / work ethics.

    some bus drivers comes to work & first thing they do is – how do we screw up the systems today!

    they don’t want to see it work because if it works they have to work harder – that’s their attitude! MTA B/O no name please.

  • I am a geek but, all this will not work until buses have protected bus lanes. Trying to resolve with technology a fundamental misallocation of space is a waste of money and a lack of balls by our #mayorofwords

  • Brian O’Rourke

    Yes, check out https://cityswifter.com

    FYI I’m a founder

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